Everyone needs a regular supply of essential amino acids to support health and metabolism. You can reach that goal by including protein at every meal. Even if you're active in intense activities or sports, getting your amino acids at meals may be as beneficial as boosting your intake before and after exercise, according to a review in the "Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition" in May 2014.
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Amino Acid Basics
When you consume protein, it’s absorbed into your bloodstream in the form of amino acids. Then cells throughout your body use the amino acids to rebuild whatever specific protein is needed at that moment. The important thing to remember is that your body doesn’t store amino acids, so cells only have access to a limited supply. If you’re short on just one amino acid at the time it's needed, the protein can’t be produced. Getting a regular supply of all the essential amino acids is the only way to ensure you’ll have what you need to strengthen muscles, create enzymes for metabolism and build and repair tissues.
Quality Protein at Meals
For most people, the best way to get amino acids is to eat several meals on a regular schedule, include protein at each meal and consume at least the amount of protein recommended by the Institute of Medicine: 46 grams daily for women and 56 grams for men. When you’re active in endurance activities or resistance training to strengthen muscles, you may need more total protein, but the same concept works for building muscles. Eating protein at each meal stimulates 24-hour muscle protein synthesis more effectively than consuming most of your protein at one meal, according to a study published in the “Journal of Nutrition” in June 2014.
Timing for Athletes
The American College of Sports Nutrition recommends consuming quality protein -- which includes all the essential amino acids -- before and after exercise, according to the statement published in “Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise” in March 2009. Short-term studies affirm that consuming essential amino acids near the time of a training session can boost muscle protein synthesis and prevent muscle protein breakdown, according to the May 2014 review in the “Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.” But long-term studies cited in the "JISSN" review produced conflicting results. More research is needed, but it's possible that your total macronutrient intake by the end of the day may be more important than whether amino acid intake is timed around training.
Branched-Chain Amino Acids
The branched-chain amino acids -- leucine, isoleucine and valine -- promote muscle protein synthesis and help reduce muscle damage during exercise. You may find leucine recommended more than the others because you need a minimum amount of leucine to stimulate muscle protein synthesis, according to the 2014 report in the "Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition." Taking leucine alone can lead to depletion of the others, however, so take all three BCAAs rather than just one. Some studies suggest taking BCAAs between meals or after exercise, but you may get the most benefit by consuming leucine only at meals, reported the review in "JISSN." Of course, more research is needed in people rather than lab animals to determine the best way to take leucine.
- Bellevue College: Protein
- Journal of Nutrition: Dietary Protein Distribution Positively Influences 24-Hour Muscle Protein Synthesis in Healthy Adults
- Institute of Medicine: Dietary Reference Intakes: Macronutrients
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: Evidence-Based Recommendations for Natural Bodybuilding Contest Preparation: Nutrition and Supplementation
- Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise: Nutrition and Athletic Performance